This week on “Downton Abbey” some meaningless, boring stuff happened. This was an episode that revealed how deeply “Downton” has become not just a soap, but only a soap, which is to say a drama that is interesting only when big-time melodramtic events — like a wedding or an interrupted wedding — happen. The plot is the whole ball game — or, to use the appropriate sports cliché, cricket match — so when said plots revolve around the failures of the prison postal service, well, snooze, no matter how elegantly the new footman’s shoulders fill out his uniform.
Lest you think I am being unduly harsh, I really tried to identify some themes: I thought maybe there was some parallel to extract from the Anna-Bates, Sybil-Branson, Ethel-and-her-son storylines because all of them involve women making sacrifices for the person they most love: Anna ends up just as she was, Ethel ends up heartbroken, Sybil ends up getting to be rich again. If you toss in Edith’s act of paternal disobedience, that covers a whole spectrum of possible outcomes for willful women in early 20th century England, or some such high-school-essay-sounding BS. It’s like a novel that appears to contain bird imagery with metaphorical significance but actually just contains a bunch of descriptions of birds. There’s no there there.
Along similar lines, the phrase “on your side” has now occurred three times this season. In the first episode, Mary yells at Matthew “because it means you’re not on our side!” and storms off; later in the same episode, Carson tells a maybe-sick Mrs. Hughes that “I’m on your side”; and this week, Albert tells Daisy “It’s good to know you’re on my side” before getting his head spun round by the new cooking maid, much to Daisy’s chagrin. Is this an intentional repetition — some reference to everything on “Downton” being black or white, upstairs or down, new or old, static or fluid, one side or another? Or is it just lazy writing? My money’s on the latter, since the former doesn’t make sense.
I remind you at this juncture that I love “Downton Abbey” like Mrs. Hughes loves her brand new toaster. (An aside: Did you notice that on her toaster she had to click the bread into place from the side of the machine? I wonder if this would have allowed one to make thicker slices of toast than the modern drop-in-the-slot models allow. Relatedly, toaster ovens absolutely destroy those drop-in-the-slot toasters, if you should ever have to decide between the two.) So I didn’t hate everything about this episode, just most of it. Hands down my favorite moment was when Carson and Albert re-staged a scene from “Pretty Woman” with Albert in the Julia Roberts role seeking guidance in flatware from Carson, who was playing Hector Elizondo.
Here are some other things I did not hate:
— I am going to continue to honor the “no commenting on Anna and Bates” policy I laid out here, but I laughed at Carson’s belabored, knife-twisting response to Anna’s inquiry about her mail, “No Anna, again I’m afraid there’s nothing for you.” It’s exposition so the audience will know Anna hasn’t been getting letters for quite some time, but it’s so bitchy, I just know Carson is as over Anna’s syrupy-sweet, wounded puppy dog thing as I am.
— The whole Ethel storyline was pretty alright. Ethel’s decision to give her baby to its grandparents so it can grow up rich was something I’ve seen before, but it was touching anyway. The Fellowes’ habit of making someone an inexplicably raging jerk worked here: that the grandfather is so nasty to Ethel (“let’s not make a meal of it,” he says to her as she’s saying good-bye to her son for the very last time) made her decision more valiant. And it was good to see Cousin Isobel’s progressive but paternalistic politics getting skewered not just by the change-phobes at the big house but also by that kind realist, Mrs. Hughes. Plus, it was probably the darkest take on the brutalities of class the show’s managed in some time.
— The Dowager Countess’s advice to Edith, “You’re a lady with a brain with reasonable ability. Stop whining and find something to do” (other than gardening), maybe came a little soon — who knows how much time has passed since Edith got jilted — but it was right, and it leads directly to …
— Lady Edith’s future career as an op-ed columnist. I am so pro this. I really hope Edith has a long and fruitful career as a writer that includes publishing a memoir about her bitch of an older sister.
— That 360-degree shot of Tom and Sybil’s embrace was nice and swoopy.
— Here’s a script repetition that works (though maybe more because of the acting than the writing). Tom’s apologies and compliments are always borderline negs of the “you’re actually really smart” variety. When the Dowager paid for him and Sybil to come to Mary’s wedding, he told her, “I’ll admit it, I’m touched,” like his admitting it was so outrageously difficult, she should thank her lucky stars he could thank her. In this episode, describing what he felt as he watched an estate he helped plan to burn down go up in flames, he said, “I was sorry, I admit it.” Later, thanking Robert, he said, “I am grateful, truly.” This arrogance is in keeping with Tom’s character — when he was wooing Sybil, he was always telling her he knew her mind even if she didn’t — and I wish “Downton” would let him keep it instead of continuously making his radical politics out to be exclusively reckless and foolish.
— The shout outs to Maud Gonne and Lady Gregory. Mary’s comment to Tom that she had “come out” with the young woman whose house he had burned was well done, too.
— The new footman Jimmy, for giving the maids — and Thomas — something to dream about.
— Mary and Matthew giggling at Carson’s crack about O’Brien. It’s not just downstairs that’s up in the upstairs’s business.